Sonnets from the Portuguese

Sonnets from the Portuguese
Original work by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Illustrated by Willy Pogàny

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The books from the Ringling Library rare books collection being investigated here are two versions of the same book: Sonnets from the Portuguese, a famous and admired collection of sonnets originally written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1850. Both books take the sonnets and arrange them interspersed with romantic, pastoral illustrations by Willy Pogàny (whose work can also be found in The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám and The Adventures of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy). There are three editions of the Thomas Y. Crowell Publishing Company’s arrangement of Sonnets from the Portuguese: editions printed in 1936, 1945, and 1950. The earliest version of the two books owned by the Ringling Library is a printing done in 1943, an impression of the edition printed in 1936. The second book being studied is the 1950 edition itself. The importance of the books in terms of the Ringling Library most likely pertain to Pogàny’s included illustrations; as a famous illustrator, William Pogàny was hired by the Ringlings to do several paintings in the Cad’Zan, including the Dancers of Nations ceiling in the ballroom.

Publisher: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co.

Huttner, Syndey F. “PUBLISHER : Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., New York, 1876-1979.” The LUCILE Project. N.p., 5 Nov. 2010. Web. 17 Jan. 2015. <;.

The Thomas Y. Crowell Publishing Company was founded as a binding company by Thomas Young Crowell in the early 1860s. It was not until later, in 1876, that Crowell began publishing books. By the time the book under investigation, was published, Thomas Y. Crowell & Co. had been in print for 67 years and was working under the third generation of Crowells, being Robert L. Crowell, president of the company in 1937. Today the Crowell Publishing Company is defunct, having been absorbed by Harper and Row in the 1978. Another quality adding to the rarity of the Sonnets of the Portuguese copies lies in the fact that they were published by a presently extinct publishing company.

In today’s book market, books published by the Thomas Y. Crowell Company range from a price of 4.00 USD to 3,500.00 USD. A 1945 Crowell printing of Sonnets from the Portuguese, an edition of the book published after that of the book under investigation, sells for 60.00 USD. The 1950 printing sells for 45.00 USD. It is interesting to note the older edition is more expensive than the newer; the establishment of value here relies on age rather than rarity of the edition.

Author: Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Forster, Margaret. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography. New York: Doubleday, 1989. Print.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a highly acclaimed English poet with a large reading audience. She was born into a family wealthy from plantations in Jamaica, but very often fell ill to sickness and was considered weak and frail for the majority of her life. A rich, yet difficultly achieved, education garnered her love for poetry, especially Greek epics. The first length of poetry she wrote was based off of Homer’s works. Later she was influenced by Shakespeare, Milton, and from reading works in their original Latin. Elizabeth Barrett Browning well educated—she was an abolitionist and activist for child labor reform. She published one of her most popular collections of poetry, titled Poems, in 1844, which sparked Robert Browning’s initiative to begin correspondence with her, even though he had been following her poetry for quite some time. Once together, Robert and Elizabeth had an immense influence on each other’s writing, and the sonnets in Sonnets from the Portuguese were written by Barrett Browning as a rumination on how her love for Robert and her work intermingled into something beautiful and genuine.

Book: Sonnets from the Portuguese

Barrett Browning, Elizabeth. Sonnets from the Portuguese. Philadelphia: David McKay Company. Print. The Pocket Classics.

Barrett Browning, Elizabeth. Sonnets from the Portuguese. New York: Harper & Row Publishers. Print.

Barrett Browning, Elizabeth. Sonnets from the Portuguese. The George Macy Companies, Inc, 1948. Print. The Limited Editions.

Sonnets from the Portuguese was originally published in 1850. It is a compilation of love sonnets the author had written for her husband, but she was tentative of how her audience would receive the very personal works. She titled the poems Sonnets from the Portuguese in attempt to mask their true origin, but the title is also a reference to Robert Browning’s pet name for her—“My little Portuguese,” and is also a reference to Barrett Browning’s  use of the Portuguese formatting of the sonnet. The compilation on its own contains 44 original sonnets that are still widely read, studied, and gifted today. They are massively published by a number of companies, ranging from commercial pocket-sized books to illustrationless copies meant purely for study to huge decorative printings with illuminated decorated letters. The content of the sonnets are ever unchanging, but the diversity of a publisher’s intended purpose for them always puts them in different contexts.


Anatomy of the Books: 1943 vs. 1950

Barrett Browning, Elizabeth. Sonnets from the Portuguese. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1943. Print. Third Printing.

The cover of the 1943 printing of Sonnets from the Portuguese is a faded green thin canvas stretched over pressed cardboard, an effective, pretty, and cheap method to covering books. The cover is also pressed with the title, author, illustration credit, and accompanying illustration in red foil. The font of the title is an ornate yet neat script, a typical decorative font for the 20th century. The red foil on the spine of the book is very faded, implying frequent holding or reading. The overall size of the book itself is larger than usual, giving the impression that it is meant to be looked at and admired instead of read and studied. The edges of the cover are more tinted with dirt as well, where oily fingers would often open the book to leaf through the pages. The edges of the pages are deckled—a trend by the 1940s long made unnecessary by technology but was still aesthetically pleasing to the overall look of the printing.

The deckled edges of the 1943 printing
The deckled edges of the 1943 printing


Undeckled edges of 1950 printing
Undeckled edges of 1950 printing

Inside the book, the pages are yellowed and slightly brittle from exposure. There is a dainty golden double-lined border framing the content of each page into its own illustration. All together there are 8 mounted illustration plates with original paintings by William Pogàny rescaled, printed, and glued to thicker pieces of paper throughout the publication. It is important to note that Pogàny was not commissioned to work on these printings of Sonnets from the Portuguese to produce original works exclusive to the publication, but rather preexisting paintings were used to add visual aesthetic to the book, emphasizing its purpose as a decorative or gift item. The chronological content of the book includes an opening title page with a black and white print of a Pogàny illustration, an actual title page stating the publishing company, the first colored illustration of the book (a pink-toned chamber scene), the table of contents, and then the first sonnet, a very subtle progression leading to the main purpose of the book. The physical layout of the sonnets is fairly simple; the Roman numeral depicting the number of the sonnet is simply printed in a simple font, each sonnet having a subtly drawn decorated letter at the beginning of every first line. Every aspect of the decorations and layout of the book are presented in subtle, graceful ways. On the inside back cover of the book, there is a mark in pencil: “$25.00 8 mounted plates.” Whoever was selling the book understood the process of the mounted illustrations on some of the pages and contributed that to the worth of the book as a whole.

Barrett Browning, Elizabeth. Sonnets from the Portuguese. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1950. Print. Fifth Printing.

The second edition being studied, printed in 1950, seems similar to the previous printing at first, but is actually very different visually. The book is overall larger than the 1943 printing, with a rusty red cover with gold foil for the title and rose image instead of the green with red, and looks much less used. The most notable difference is in the preservation of the pages, which are still white and glossy (most likely from the use of a less grainy type of paper than the 1943 book), despite being only 7 years younger than its yellowing counterpart. The edges of the pages are smooth and not deckled for aesthetic, giving the book an entirely different feeling of pristine presentation rather than a homey and loved book one is meant to leaf through often. The first image of the book is another Pogàny illustration, but the differences between the opening images of the 1943 and 1950 printings are stark and give a lot of insight into how the publishers view both arranged editions:

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In the 1943 printing, the very first item seen when opening the book is an illustration of a nude woman with her guitar bound my thorns, body twisted and hair splayed with the title of the poem collection in large elegant writing above. While a beautiful illustration, in the 1950 printing the editors felt the image inspired the wrong kind of feelings when going into a sonnet collection about love. The newer version depicts a woman who is upright, gazing upward and strumming her guitar, bound by nothing. As a result, a reader has a more easygoing, peaceful attitude when entering the book. The rest of the 1950 printing is constructed and arranged in such a way as to promote an easy and serene experience. The font, done in black ink, is more reserved than the earlier printing and there is an absence of any border decoration after the title page. The illustrations are printed on the pages, rather than a separate image being glued down. Some aspects of the 1943 printing that are found at the end of the publication, such as a paragraph explaining the history of Elizabeth and the sonnets, a devoting quote from Robert Browning, and a facsimile of one of the original sonnets written by Elizabeth, have been edited in the 1950 version to be in front of all of the finished sonnets, presenting the history and background knowledge of the works before the actual work. In this way, when comparing the two works, the 1943 publication values reading the sonnets first before the extraneous information, meaning the publishers meant the edition to be read and enjoyed rather than looked at. In the 1950 edition, the reader must sift through the history before reaching the sonnets, which by that time will be thought of more as a historical artifact rather than poetry to be read and admired. Overall, the 1950 version was most likely better preserved and treated with less damaging attention over time as a result of its decorative nature, rather than that of the 1943 edition, which was arranged in a way to be treated as a book for reading and appreciating the sonnets.


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